If you’re looking to break into writing for television, writing spec scripts and applying to any number of network TV writing diversity/fellowship programs is one way to go about it.
Here is the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of it all:
- WHO: Warner Brothers, NBC, CBS, Nickelodeon, Fox, and HBO all have TV writing programs that are FREE to apply to.
- WHAT: Programs vary: some are paid, some aren’t, but in general they’re used to prepare writers for being staffed within their network or studio. This frequently takes the form of weekly workshops covering anything from story structure to pitching original concepts and often includes pairing writers up with executive mentors. And although none of the programs guarantee staffing of any kind, most set up meetings for writers who do well in their program.
- WHEN: Different programs take applications at different times of the year, but spring has the most applications due in a compressed time. I’ve listed the various due dates below (but they may change year to year).
- WHERE: All of these programs take place in Los Angeles and do not provide accommodations for out of town writers. If you apply to one of these programs, be sure you have the means to see it through! Acceptance into any one of these programs requires perfect attendance at all seminars and workshops. Schedules vary by program.
- WHY: The goal of these programs is to prepare the writer for writing television and get them staffed. A lot of the programs emphasize finding diverse talent as a way to create better representation in their writers’ rooms. Both the Nickelodeon and the Disney/ABC program are paid, so for those writers it is a fulltime job for the duration of the program. Pretty universally, these fellowships help writers hone their pitching skills, practice collaborating in a writers’ room-type scenario, and learn directly from showrunners/executive producers.
- HOW: Applications usually require a spec script of a show that was on the air during the last television season – right now, that is the 2017-2018 season. For most programs, this includes primetime and cable shows, and has recently expanded to include digital series that have appeared on Netflix, Hulu , or Amazon. Some programs also require an original pilot in the same tone as your spec script (ie a sitcom if you spec’d something like Modern Family, a procedural if your spec is for Criminal Minds, etc.) Applications usually include a writing resume, signed submission agreements, and some sort of essay, personal statement, or letter of interest.
Here is a brief rundown of the different programs:
- Fox — Applications open Sept 25th and close Oct 22 – OR when they receive 750 applications, whichever comes first. Requires an original pilot script and 2 letters of recommendation. They choose 8 writers for the 4 month program, and those writers will also get staffing meetings. One of those writers will get a script deal with Fox.
- Nickelodeon – Was due January 31, 2018. General track is a PAID 12 month commitment; preschool track is a PAID 6 month commitment. Must submit a spec from their limited list of comedy shows, depending on which track you’re applying for.
- HBO – Due: spring of 2019. Need to submit an original pilot. Every other year they choose 8 writers for a one-week intensive of master classes, followed by 8 months of mentoring to develop a script suitable for HBO or Cinemax.
- CBS – Was due May 1, 2018. Need to submit both an original pilot and a spec. Program runs for 8 months, beginning in October. Unpaid.
- NBC Writers on the Verge – Was due May 31st, 2018. Must write a spec from their accepted shows list. If you are a semifinalist, you will be asked to submit an original. 12 week program consisting of weekly evening classes. Unpaid.
- Disney/ABC – Was due May 31st, 2018. One year PAID program. Require both original pilot script and a spec that could fit in the current TV season. This program also allows up to two letters of recommendation with your application (optional).
- WB – Was due May 31st, 2018. Need to submit a spec from their accepted shows list. Program runs October 2018 – April 2019, one evening a week, including both lectures and simulated writers’ rooms. Unpaid.
As you can see, if you’re going to apply for one of these programs, you’ll most likely need an up-to-date spec script. Choose a show that you know well and that is in at least its 2nd season. Some programs have strict lists of acceptable shows, so be sure to check the specifics when you’re applying. Next, come up with a concept that can fit into the current season of the show and write your spec. Be sure to include some sort of “previously on” section on the title page of your script to let people know where your story fits into the overall season. It is perfectly fine if your spec deviates from where the show’s storyline actually goes, as long as what has led up to your spec makes sense.
Most folks are split in regards to whether they want to read a spec script or a writer’s original pilot from new writers. Most showrunners and EPs I’ve heard speak on this subject (at various Comic Con, Wonder Con, WGA panels, podcasts, etc.) say that when they’re looking to staff their shows, they prefer to read original scripts. However, there are still a good number of higher-ups who enjoy reading specs, stating that they need to know if a writer can write in the tone of a show and voices of already-established characters. Universally, folks do not want to read a spec from their own show – no matter how well it is written, there will inevitably be some nuances that the writer doesn’t catch. Plus, they know their show better than anyone.
So, what do you think? Did you apply to any of the programs this year or do you have plans to in the future? Tweet me and let me know!